The ideal summertime mocktail: Decoding the popularity of 'Sharbath'

Musings on everyday life

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Suresh Pattali

Published: Thu 20 Jul 2023, 7:17 PM

I grew up watching three village entrepreneurs in awe, much before the "constipated" word moonwalked into my cognitive arena. The word didn't impress me at the outset as my Mallu tongue and alveolar ridge needed to laterally perform the Bharatanatyam to get its phonetics right. All the trappings about the word — from the pronunciation to the spelling — would force me to flip the page. For the uninitiated, phonetics used to be a backbencher in the syllabus of the 1970s, and that's precisely why my daughter still tells me to never open my mouth. "Write but never speak" is her dictate.

Such a throwback is necessary as this column is about how a filthy, bucolic setup, where I spent my childhood, was a global classroom offering lessons in diversification, entrepreneurship and marketing. Lesson One in my book of life was a lanky fishmonger who called himself Mr Macaroni. This was decades before the word 'globalisation' was invented and much before Rajeev Gandhi happened to meet his future wife from the land of real Macaroni, Edvige Antonia Albina Maino alias Sonia, in a Greek restaurant in London. So why did the fishmonger give himself the sobriquet Mr Macaroni?

Mr Macaroni, a stranger from a hamlet afar, cut a sorry figure when he carried his headload yelling "Macaroni, Macaroni" while a smelly, viscous fluid from his bamboo basket gushed over his face. Mr Macaroni was not selling the Italian staple but the mackerel fish, the darling of all Malayali palates. Mr Macaroni oozing the smell of the sea was not a dampener, but a darling for all the housewives waiting to cook a sumptuous feast for their husbands. That was during the spring when the sea was calm and generous to fisherfolk.

During monsoons, Mr Macaroni would undergo a metanoia, turning into a giver with a purse full of nickels. This time around, he would be Mr Egg, buying up all the dreams laid in the dark corners of impoverished homes and saved up for a rainy day. Mr Egg, now a middleman dealing in the poultry product, would later make a killing in open markets.

In winter, when most temple festivals took place and theatres were packed with moviegoers, he would be there as Mr Sharbath, marketing himself as an "actor" in the epic move Chemmeen. Throngs of people would hover around his cart full of coloured bottles as he yelled out his marketing maxim, "Wanna see me, watch the movie Chemmeen", where he was just a dot in a sea of visages shown for a split second. The guy was a single-man corporate with a well-diversified portfolio to spur his growth.

Number Two in my book of life was an innovative candy peddler who we called 'The Ginger Man'. Coming from the Western Ghats with a tray full of candies, the elegantly dressed salesman would descend on town squares and embark on his trademark high-speed walkathon, yelling "inji (ginger) mithai, inji mithai". In an ingenious marketing strategy that even corporate giants would envy, he would refuse to stop for customers lining up by the wayside to buy candies, keeping them all waiting until he brakes briefly on the return lap of the marathon. He taught us a long, persistent wait would ginger up our candy times — and dreams. He was the CEO, CMO, CBO and salesman all rolled into one, heading a one-man SME.

The third model entrepreneur was peanut seller Vijayan. His kiosk-on-wheels was anchored on a National Highway property in the day and pushed back home a kilometre away in the night. He fried peanuts in a wok full of sand and sorted them in 10-paise and 20-paise packets to sell them to officegoers heading home and neighbourhood bar guests carrying one for the road on their hips. Vijayan diversified into soda sharbath and grated ice topped with sugar syrup as global warming aggravated Indian summers.

While the world sweated on account of activist Greta Thunberg, John Kerry, Michael Mann et al on the 1.5-degree challenge, Vijayan and vendors of the same ilk invented new sharbath recipes that took the sizzling south India and its sister regions across the globe by storm. Gone were the days of popular brands like Rasna and Tango. In were locally brewed mocktails like the Kulukki (shaken) Sharbath — a blend of lemon juice, basil seeds, nannari syrup, ginger, slit green chilli, etc.

The success of impoverished innovators like Vijayan is internationalising the Kulukki Sharbath, with the refreshing mocktail making its way to the culinary market in the UAE, where it now sells for anything between Dh10-20 at a run-of-the-mill restaurant. Such is its popularity. After gulping a king-size serving of the mocktail, I'm just wondering if the Kulukki Sharbath would be served when Joe Biden calls on Narendra Modi the next time or when Kamala Harris throws a White House party to celebrate her likely presidential win. A spicy touch to her Indian legacy. That's a lot of shaking (kulukki) for her partner Douglas Emhoff in the White House kitchen.

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